Light outside had just begun to wane as the drum meditation class at Crenshaw Yoga and Dance began. Lei Lei Lashawn gathered a djembe and smaller doumbek between her knees and set a beat into motion that rolled and tumbled for a full 40 minutes.
About midway through, the ancient heartbeat produced by her two hands built to orchestral strength.
The evening offered one of many such healing experiences at the yoga studio that, against the odds, is still serving the historic Black neighborhood 18 years after it was founded by Kar Lee Young, a now-retired nurse. Although Young has turned day-to-day operations over to two dynamic younger women – studio manager Chelsea Williams, who teaches yoga classes, and Myra Barayang, the front desk manager who delivers sound baths of her own playing crystal singing bowls – she remains its driving force.
Crenshaw Yoga and Dance founder Kar Lee Young.
All three anticipate that the new Crenshaw/LAX line, about to begin service, will bring good things, especially with a stop about a block away.
“Now with the train coming, there will be thousands of pairs of eyes” on the studio on a daily basis, Young says. “I’m actually hopeful.”
Like dozens of other businesses along the corridor, the studio managed to stay afloat, especially during the first wave of the pandemic, partially through the help of financial aid from the office of Los Angeles City Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson and small grants from Destination Crenshaw’s DC Thrive program, which supports local enterprises. Also, through a DC Thrive partnership with Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) and the LISC Ascend program, student interns helped Young and her colleagues market the business on social media.
For her part, Young has generously hosted numerous community events at her studio. After discovering that yoga helped her to think clearly during a difficult period in her life, Young says she felt compelled to bring a combination of yoga, dance, meditation and other practices to a neighborhood that didn’t have anything quite like it.
Crenshaw Yoga and Dance studio manager and yoga instructor Chelsea Williams, left, with front desk manager Myra Barayang, a sound healer who plays crystal bowls, in front of the studio.
Bahni Turpin, a longtime yoga instructor who has taught classes at Crenshaw Yoga and is perhaps better known as the founder of the local SoLA organic food co-op, said Crenshaw Yoga occupies a special place in the community.
“Kar Lee has a beautiful space that is such a wonderful asset to the neighborhood,” says Turpin, who once graced the cover of Yoga Journal. “There are other places to take yoga or to study dance, but she’s created a complex that’s really a unique blend of offerings. I’d love to see more people take advantage of what she’s providing.”
From the beginning, Young said her intention was to serve her neighbors.
“Instead of a fancy name like ‘Lotus,’ I used Crenshaw because I wanted it to be a community studio,” Young says. Over the course of nearly two decades, that is what it’s become.
It’s a good place to be – finally.
For the past four years construction of the train line took a toll on the studio’s longtime community of students.
“In just a matter of weeks, [students] said, ‘Forget it, I’m not coming back,’” Young recalls.
But what the construction took away, perhaps the train can return, with dividends.
By the time the train is fully up and running regularly, forecast for later this year, Young hopes to have a new sign out front, letting the public know that in addition to the yoga studio visible from the street, the location includes two commercial spaces, and two enormous studios tucked into the back out of sight.
One of the larger, light-filled studios for rent at Crenshaw Yoga and Dance.
With a combined 5,000 square feet, one of the studios can accommodate 70 dance students at a time for classes and the other 100. One has a small stage and tall windows along one wall, the other a large kitchen. Both have vaulted ceilings with skylights that flood the wooden dance floors with natural light. Locals rent the studios out for commercial shoots, performances, rehearsals and events, such as a recent Ramadan celebration.
“The majority of our business comes through rentals,” says Williams, who manages the company. “We definitely are seeing more people stop by [who] are ready to move back to an in-person experience.”
The five students present for the recent drum meditation got a strong reminder of how impactful it can be to take classes not via Zoom (though the studio does offer virtual instruction) but live.
Drum meditation instructor and musician Lei Lei Lashawn explains her process.
“Make sure to drink a lot of water” to wash away anything shaken loose by her immersive drumming, the instructor Lashawn told students before they left. The following week Barayang gave another crop of students a full moon sound bath while playing her crystal singing bowls.
Barayang, Williams and Young hope that new clients from the train will allow them to do many more creative classes and events for the community than they’ve ever been able to do before.
“The hope is obviously that people will ride the train, see the sign and look us up,” says Williams, who expects to start riding the train to work. “There are so many more people in L.A. who we could be serving.”
— By Ann Marsh